Thursday, August 9, 2012

George O'Brien: King of the '30s Westerns

By Ed Garea

Westerns have been a staple of moviemaking ever since 1903 and The Great Train Robbery. As filmmaking moved on to California and bigger budgets, Westerns followed, sometimes as big budget “A” productions, but more often than not as “B” programmers. Cecil B. DeMille’s full-length feature (74 minutes), The Squaw Man, returned 10 times its budget at the box office (it cost around $20,000 to make) and alerted Hollywood to the profits that could be made from the genre. In 1923, Paramount made the first big-budget Western, The Covered Wagon. Costing an estimated $782,000 to make, a major sum at the time, it returned about $3.8 million in receipts.

The Iron Horse, from Fox, followed a year later, directed by the already-veteran John Ford. Made for about $250,000, it returned over $2 million. Even more important to our story, the film starred an unknown who went on to become one of the biggest stars of the silent era for Fox. His name was George O’Brien.

O’Brien grew up in California, the son Daniel O’Brien, a San Francisco policeman who rose to become Chief of Police, and later, California Director of Penology. As a policeman, Dan was assigned for a time to the Mounted Unit. It was as a boy that George spent his spare hours at the stable, caring for the horse, and more importantly, learning to ride.  A natural athlete, he enrolled at Santa Clara College to study medicine. When America entered World War I, O’Brien left to join the Navy and volunteered to serve as a stretcher-bearer with the Marines, where he was decorated several times for bravery under fire. His athletic ability enabled him to become Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the Pacific Fleet.

After the war, a chance meeting with Tom Mix led to a job as a camera assistant with Mix’s production company. From there, he broadened his horizons to prop man, extra, stunt man, and finally, bit player. Word on the grapevine alerted him to the fact that Ford was casting his new film The Iron Horse, and O’Brien took a screen test. Ford, impressed with the test, and the fact that O’Brien knew how to ride a horse, signed him for the lead over the studio’s objections. The film became a hit and O’Brien became a star.

He followed it up with several features for Fox and was directed by such as Jack Conway, Rowland V. Lee and Howard Hawks, in addition to Ford. Then came F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in 1927, recognized as one of the all-time classics of American cinema. O’Brien played a simple farmer married to Janet Gaynor. Trouble brews when a fallen woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) tries to convince him to drown his wife. But all’s well that ends well and husband and wife are reunited. In addition to increasing O’Brien’s fame, the picture made Gaynor into an instant star. She received the Academy Award for this film, among others, in 1929.

O’Brien’s star, however, was about to fall. In 1928, he starred for Warners in Noah’s Ark, a big-budget epic about Noah and the Great Flood with a parallel story about soldiers in the First World War. Like The Jazz Singer it was primarily a silent film with talking sequences. But no amount of talking could save this confusing mess. It bombed at the box office and only upon its release in Europe did it come close to making back its $1.5 million budget.

They say a hit is only good until your next hit, but a bomb lasts forever. This was certainly the case with O’Brien, who now found himself reduced to lower-budgeted films. He might have been out of a job altogether if it were not for the advent of sound and the coming of the Great Depression. The studios soon discovered that sound was not enough – audiences were used to a full program and demanded that if they were to come to the movies. Thus the double feature now became the norm. Coupled with a newsreel and a cartoon or short, a family could have an entire night’s work of cheap entertainment. And, who knows? They could always win something on “Dish Night” or at “Screeno.”

When it came to lower-budgeted movies, studios could rely on independent studios or producers for product. Or they could make it themselves. And what genre was more suited for a lower budget than the good old Western? All a producer needed was a couple of horses, a plot of land, a script, a director, and a cast on the cheap. The Depression dictated a buyer’s market and there were plenty of actors willing to star in just about anything in order to earn a paycheck. George O’Brien was among them – and George O’Brien had something they didn’t. He was a trained horseman. In other words he wouldn’t give the impression on the screen of having never been more West than 10th Avenue in Manhattan.

Thus began O’Brien’s career in B-Westerns. He was good, and he built a following with such films as Riders of the Purple SageThe Rainbow Trail, and The Gay Caballero. His first films for Fox came from established pulp writers such as Zane Gray and Max Brand, but as the need for product became greater, producers relied more on original stories. Also, when needed to save money, footage from silent westerns could be inserted.

Although O’Brien would appear in a few films outside the genre, such as Ever Since Eve (1934) and Hard Rock Harrigan (1935), he was wedded to the Western. And they all made money, establishing him as the number one B-cowboy star, even bigger than his main competition: an actor that bombed in the big-budget Fox Western The Big Trail in 1931, and who later went to Warners as a B-player in mostly Westerns, and later to Monogram, where he became a singing cowboy: John Wayne.

In 1934, O’Brien began working for producer Sol Lesser, who used such companies as Atherton Productions and Principal Productions as corporate fronts. David Howard was one of Lesser’s directors, and when Howard left for RKO, O’Brien went with him. At first, everything was fine with the financial ledger, but then, Timber Stampede (1939) became the first of O’Brien’s Westerns to lose money. Whether the public was tiring of him or whether it was nervousness over the war in Europe is unknown. O’Brien’s last film for RKO was Triple Justice in 1940. When America declared war on Japan in 1941, O’Brien once again enlisted in the Navy, seeing action in the Pacific and was decorated several times. After the war, when he could not find film work, his old director John Ford gave him a few small roles. He also starred in Gold Raiders with The Three Stooges (Moe, Larry and Shemp) for United Artists in 1951.

His time spent away from home during the war probably doomed his 15-year marriage to actress Marguerite Churchill and they divorced in 1948. When the Korean Conflict broke out, he again served with the Navy, and would do so again during the Vietnam War, finally leaving the service with the rank of captain and having been recommended for admiral four times. He moved to Oklahoma, where he began ranching, but a heart attack forced this man of action to his bed for the last few years of his life. He breathed his last on September 4, 1985 in Tulsa.

Below are three representative films of O’Brien that were recently shown on TCM (July 31, 2012).

GUN LAW (1938) – While on his way to clean up the town of Gunsight, Arizona (How’s that for a name?), Marshal Tom O’Malley (O’Brien) is ambushed by a man he put in jail but who escaped, The Raven (Edward Pawley), and relived of his clothes, horse and canteen of water. Forced to walk, Tom catches up with The Raven at a water hole. It seems that The Raven drank from a contaminated spring and dies in front of the Marshal. Searching for The Raven, O’Malley finds a note of introduction to one Flash Arnold (Robert Glecker), who runs Gunsight while robbing stagecoaches for a sideline. By sheer luck, Tom is picked up by a preacher (Frank O’Connor) and his comely daughter (Rita Oehmen), who are on their way to town to open a church.

Once in town, Tom pretends to be The Raven, whom no one in town has met. Tom also gets the lowdown from undercover man Sam McGee (Ray Whitley), who works in Arnold’s saloon as an entertainer and bartender. O’Malley tells him that he figures Arnold is not the head honcho and he’s looking to catch both Arnold and Mister Big. By now we have learned that the mayor is that man, working with Arnold robbing stages. From there, it’s a matter of time and a little plot as to how Marshal Tom gets his men. In the end he rides them to the jail in the next town and promises the preacher’s daughter that he’ll be back. It’s a relatively simple plot that couldn’t be more telegraphed if it was written by Western Union. When the mayor visits his partner, Arnold, it’s all supposed to be on the QT. But then we see later the mayor ambling down the backstairs in broad daylight. But we all know that intricate plots are not the reason why we watch.  No, we watch for the sheer enjoyment it brings to see a veteran like O’Brien in action – and doing his own stunt work, by the way. Look for Ward Bond in an early role as one of Arnold’s henchmen. Also, watch for Ray Whitley’s scenes. It’s a good thing he can sing, because he sure can’t act. He makes William Shatner look like Laurence Olivier in comparison. As a musician, though, Whitley wrote the famous “Back in the Saddle Again,” among others, and managed The Sons of the Pioneers.

THE FIGHTING GRINGO (1939) – Wade Barton (O’Brien) leads a band of troubleshooters whose duty is to help the oppressed and the innocent. While breaking up an attempted robbery of a stagecoach he makes the acquaintance of Nita Del Campo (Lupita Tovar). Naturally, she’s taken with him and invites him to a fiesta at her father’s hacienda. At the film moves on, both the audience and Wade learn that there’s some work afoot to cheat Senor Del Campo (Lucio Villegas) out of his land. Behind the dirty deeds are John Courtney (LeRoy Mason) and his foreman, Ben Wallace (William Royle). During a heated private argument between Del Campo and Courtney, Wallace knocks out Del Campo and shoots Courtney to death, framing Del Campo. Wallace figures to cash in as he’s engaged to Courtney’s sister. Things look bleak for Del Campo, but Wade manages to save the day by turning Wallace and his dimwitted right-hand man, Rance Potter (Glenn Strange), against each other in order to get one to confess. Watch for Ben Johnson making his film debut in a small scene as a barfly at the cantina where Del Campos is hiding. All in all, this is the best of the three movies.

TIMBER STAMPEDE (1939) – This time O’Brien is Scott Baylor, a cattleman tending his herd in the rich timberlands. (This is certainly one on me. I thought cattlemen raised their herds on the prairie, not in the woods.) Con men Jay Jones (Poverty Row stalwart Guy Usher) and Foss Dunlap (Morgan Wallace) are plotting to strip the town of Wagon Wheel (Another great name!) of the timberland by promising to build a railroad, but in reality stripping the land of its trees. In tow with the baddies is reporter Anne Carr (Marjorie Reynolds), whom they duped into glorifying their efforts to “further the progress of the West.” When Scott’s uncle Henry (Earl Dwire), who owns the town’s newspaper, The Wagon Wheel Clarion, (Must reading in Wagon Wheel) publishes articles accusing the railroad of legalized larceny, Jones and Dunlap buy the paper out from under him and install Carr as Editor-In-Chief so she can write flattering articles about the progress the railroad is making.

In addition, Jones and Dunlap take over the local saloon and hang a sign out front reading “Cowboys Not Welcome.” It doesn’t get any more obvious than that. Jones is also paying drifters and his loggers to claim additional acres of land under the Homestead Act and then sign their claims over to him. When Sheriff Lyman (Bob Burns) investigates, Jones’s hired gun Matt Chaflin (Robert Fiske) murders him and then is appointed sheriff by Jones. Anne, for her part, refuses to believe any of Scott’s accusations, so he and sidekick Whopper Hatch (Chill Wills) pose as potential homesteaders and snap a photo of Jones paying the drifters. Showing the evidence to Anne, she joins them, and with the help of Uncle Henry, publishes an edition of the Clarion with the photo and accompanying article exposing the fraud. Chaflin forms a posse to arrest Scott for the murder of Sheriff Lyman, and Scott holds them off at the newspaper office while Whopper rides for help among the other cattlemen. They arrive in time to save Scott’s bacon, and Scott outduels Chaflin as well. The town and the forest are saved, and Jones and Dunlap are carted off to the hoosegow. But as Whopper notes, Scott is also going to serve a life sentence, but with Anne. While the plot has the usual holes one would expect in a B-movie, the acting is uniformly good and Reynolds stands out as the most beautiful of O’Brien’s leading ladies. It was only a matter of time until she would get her big breakthrough. Watch for Billy Benefit in a small role as the printing devil of Uncle Henry.

The Writer would like to thank his Colleague and Friend, Steven Herte, for his assistance in editing the article.

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